KABUL, Afghanistan – In a major blow to the delivery of humanitarian services in one of the most vulnerable areas in war-riddled Afghanistan, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced plans on Monday to drastically reduce its presence and activities in the country following a rise in deadly attacks on the institution.
The decision came after the humanitarian organization lost seven of its employees in targeted killings in less than a year. In addition, three other ICRC staffers got abducted. All incidents took place in the north part of Afghanistan.
The deadliest blow, described by Monica Zanarelli, head of the delegation for the ICRC in Afghanistan, as heartbreaking, came last month when a long-time patient shot 38-year-old Spanish physiotherapists Lorena Enebral Perez at one of the ICRC rehabilitation centers in Mazar-e-Sharif city, one of the relatively safer places in Afghanistan. He was a 19-year polio patient at an orthopedic center in northern Afghanistan.
Just two weeks before the tragic killing of Ms. Perez in September, the ICRC announced two of its staff members who were abducted in Jawzjan province in February, had been released.
“Their abduction and the killings of our six colleagues were emotional agony for all of us, especially for their families and friends,” Ms. Zanarelli said at the time, talking about the attack of pro-ISIS militants on the ICRC convoy in the Qosh Tapa area in the Jawzjan province.
In December 2016, another ICRC staff member was abducted in Kunduz province and released four weeks later.
Besides armed rebel groups, criminal syndicates are also believed to be behind the attacks and kidnapping aimed at foreign and local employees of aid agencies.
Announcing the decision to scale down operations, Ms. Zanarelli said ICRC’s offices in Maimana and Kunduz cities would be closed down, while its sub-delegation in Mazar-i-Sharif would be significantly downsized. The rehabilitation center in Mazar-i-Sharif will continue to operate, while the ICRC assesses the ability of its partners – either other organizations or Afghan authorities – to take over the center. Activities In the rest of the country are also being reviewed.
“The ICRC talks to everyone, [it] talks to the government and all the players in this country, so that’s not the issue, the issue is that security of the ICRC is built on a different concept than the one of, maybe, other organizations or the foreign presence in this country,” Ms. Zanarelli said in a Monday press conference in Kabul.
“Our security has to be guaranteed by parties to the conflict, but this is done through dialogue and respect for what we are doing as a neutral, independent and impartial organization. And not through passive means like weapons like high walls,” she explained.
The ICRC rehabilitation facilities in the northern part of Afghanistan provided treatment to tens of thousands of patients who will now have to bear the brunt of the situation.
In Kunduz alone, thousands of disabled and displaced victims of war were heavily relying on the ICRC. Until now, the ICRC was even able to deliver humanitarian services in the areas under the militants’ control.
Abdul Mateen, director of public health in Kunduz, told The Globe Post the closure of ICRC offices would further aggravate already fragile health and humanitarian situation, as well as rescue operations.
“They [ICRC] were extremely helpful in many areas, for example, providing much-needed medicine and other equipment for clinics in Kunduz city and Imam Saheb district, transfer of dead bodies from battlefields and swiftly reaching for rescue and relief of the victims of natural disasters,” he said.
Mohammad Naeed, health director in Faryab province, has also expressed grim concerns over the ICRC’s closure in the provincial capital Maimana.
“For us, they [ICRC staff] were like a ray of hope even in areas under the militants’ control where fighting is still going on,” he told The Globe Post.
Besides the hallmark rehabilitation facilities, the ICRC was also spearheading aid delivery operations to the tens of thousands of internally displaced people forced to flee their homes due to raging violence.
The ICRC officials said up to 120 foreigners and around 1800 Afghans are working for the organization at the moment but did not specify how many people will be affected by downsizing.